Difficult Texts

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off.' it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."

In this verse the word "hell" is translated from the Greek word "gehenna," which is another name for the valley of Hinnom located just outside the walls of Jerusalem. There the refuse and bodies of animals were cast into an ever-smouldering fire to be consumed. What might escape the flames was constantly being destroyed by maggots which fed on the dead bodies. Gehenna symbolised a place of total destruction.

Jesus taught in this verse that the fires of hell could not be quenched or put out by anyone. Isaiah said, "They shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame." Isaiah 47:14. Yet he hastened to say in the same verse that "there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it." So the unquenchable fire will go out after it has consumed the wicked as stubble. Jerusalem burned with unquenchable fire according to Jeremiah 17:27 when it was totally destroyed (2 Chronicles 36:19-21).

The flames and worms of "gehenna" represented the total annihilation and obliteration of sin and sinners. Earlier apostasy and idol worship in the valley of Hinnom (Jeremiah 32:35), and God's judgements on Israel as a consequence, marked it as a symbol of punishment and judgement. God warned in Jeremiah 7:31-33 that it would become the "valley of slaughter" where the "carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven." With the fires of "gehenna" burning before their eyes, Jesus could not have spoken a more graphic word to the Pharisees to describe the final, total destruction of sinners.

Those who cite this text to support their doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul are thrown into a real dilemma. Why? Because the fire and worms are working not upon disembodied souls, but bodies! According to Jesus, those who are cast into the lake of fire will go in bodily form, and this text confirms that truth. The verses before and after this text speak of the hands, feet, and bodies of those who suffer the Gehenna fire. In Matthew 5:30 Christ said, "the whole body" would be cast into hell.

In Isaiah 66:24, the same "Gehenna" picture of hell is presented with the unquenchable flame and the destroying worms. But in this case the word "carcasses" is used, revealing the fact that the fire consumes dead bodies, not disembodied souls. Speaking of the enemies of the Lord, Isaiah 51:8 says that "the worm shall eat them like wool"--a picture of being put out of existence.

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